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Who caused the violence at protests? It wasn’t antifa.

Trump has consistently, misleadingly blamed antifa as perpetrators of violence at the George Floyd protests. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“The memory of George Floyd is being dishonored by rioters, looters and anarchists. The violence and vandalism is being led by antifa and other radical left-wing groups who are terrorizing the innocent, destroying jobs, hurting businesses and burning down buildings.”

President Trump, in remarks at a SpaceX launch, May 30

“I don't see any indication that there were any white supremest groups mixing in. This is an ANTIFA Organization. It seems that the first time we saw it in a major way was Occupy Wall Street. It's the same mindset.” @kilmeade @foxandfriends TRUE!”

Trump, in a tweet, June 1

“Our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists. Violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, antifa and others.”

Trump, in remarks at the White House Rose Garden, June 1

“We have antifa, we have anarchists, we have terrorists, we have looters. We have a lot of bad people in those groups. I mean, you watch and you see.”

Trump, in an interview, June 3

On May 30 — five days after George Floyd was killed and four after protests erupted across Minneapolis — President Trump first said antifa forces were behind the violence that swept across the country. He has repeated this claim nearly 20 times since. Online activists and prominent right-wing Twitter personalities promoted the theory. And the nation’s top law enforcement officials — including FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Attorney General William P. Barr — appeared to confirm it, echoing Trump’s claim.

The Fact Checker video team spoke to witnesses and reviewed arrest records, federal charges, intelligence reports, online conversations and dozens of videos and photos of violent incidents from the early days of protests in Minneapolis to determine whether a coordinated antifa campaign was responsible for the violence.

Let’s review.

The Facts

Antifa is a moniker, not a single group with a clear organizational structure or leader. It is a decentralized network of activists who don’t coordinate. Their common ground is opposing anything that they think is racist or fascist. In recent years, antifa activists appeared whenever there was a large gathering of white nationalists.

And white nationalists, as counterintuitive as it might seem, have been known to attend Black Lives Matter rallies. That is what could then draw attention from antifa forces, according to Seth G. Jones, director of the transnational threats project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at ADL, emphasized, “It’s a challenge [to identify antifa] because this is not an organized group. You’re essentially looking to try to identify what does somebody believe in.” Antifa has been identified by patches, flags, graffiti and black clothing, Segal explained. And at times, they can be identifiable by moving in “black bloc” formation. But, Segal hedged, looking to identify antifa by these visual cues is “not foolproof.”

Jones reviewed protests in more than 140 cities and spoke with U.S. officials within the joint terrorism task force. Most of the violence, Jones said, was committed by “local hooligans, sometimes gangs, sometimes just individuals that are trying to take advantage of an opportunity.”

“There were reports of some antifa at different protests,” he concluded. “But they stood back, did not engage, certainly not in a violent way.”

Officials have arrested more than 14,000 people across 49 cities nationwide since May 27, according to a Washington Post tally of data provided by police departments and included in media reports. Thousands were arrested for low-level offenses, including curfew violations and failure to disperse.

Roughly 80 federal charges, including murder and throwing molotov cocktails at police vehicles, reveal no evidence of an antifa plot. Four people who identify with the far-right extremist “boogaloo” movement are among those facing the most serious federal charges. Asked whether anyone who identifies as antifa had been charged, Department of Justice spokesman Matt Lloyd said via email, “We do not collect statistics based on potential inspiration but on unlawful acts according to statute.”

An intelligence bulletin issued by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center that was obtained by ABC News warned that “anarchist extremists continue to pose the most significant threat of targeted assaults against police.” The bulletin, which was distributed to police departments nationwide, mentions antifa only in a footnote differentiating those who self-identify with the group from anarchists.

Rather, the bulletin said that “the greatest threat of lethal violence continues to emanate from lone offenders with racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist ideologies and [domestic violent extremists] with personalized ideologies,” specifically pointing to boogaloo-related groups as likely to be “instigating violence” at the protests.

The DHS said in a June 1 internal intelligence report seen by Reuters that “most of the violence appears to have been driven by opportunists.” A separate DHS document dated June 17 reviewed by Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent stated “anarchist and anti-government extremists pose the most significant threat of targeted low-level, protest-related assaults against law enforcement.” The document did not mention antifa by name and the document’s definition of “anarchist extremist” appears to exclude the group.

The Nation revealed a separate FBI document that said the bureau found “no intel indicating antifa involvement” in the May 31 protests in Washington. (A woman was arrested after the Portland violence and the probable cause document quoted roommates as saying she said she was part of antifa. But the charges were dismissed and the case is closed.)

Even though tangible evidence of antifa’s involvement is scant, as protests multiplied, rumors regarding the movement’s alleged role spread across social media. “What we have seen at ADL is that there has been misinformation that has suggested that antifa has been in places where there has not been any proof that they’ve been,” Segal said. This effort, he said, was “more coordinated it seems than antifa has been at actually being on the ground.”

A Twitter account that claimed to be run by antifa activists and called for violence at the protests was later linked to the white nationalist group Identity Evropa. A viral May 27 tweet, from a popular QAnon account, alleged that the protests were an effort by the “deep state” to “start a race war before the election,” arguing “antifa & BLM are domestic terrorist organizations that need to be STOPPED.” Conservative media outlets and prominent Twitter influencers, including Donald Trump Jr., amplified the theory that antifa was connected to the violence.

By May 29, there were almost 300,000 mentions of antifa on Twitter, according to an analysis by Zignal Labs, a media intelligence company. The next day, mentions reached nearly 1.5 million. An analysis of the Twitter accounts followed by the president, via Emerson T. Brooking of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, found that about 10 percent of his feed on May 30 suggested in some fashion or other that antifa is a terrorist organization. That day, Trump first blamed antifa for violence at the protests.

“There was a concerted effort by alt-right activists not just to conflate the protest with antifa, but to get antifa declared a terrorist organization by the president of the United States,” Brooking said. “We see that there was a coordinated, essentially, series of petitions, an online lobbying effort.”

By May 31, mentions on Twitter reached almost 3.9 million, search interest in “antifa” spiked and Trump tweeted that he would declare it a terrorist organization — although he has no authority to do so under the law.

“Search interest in antifa was so great, in fact, that it outweighed search interest in Black Lives Matter during these protests,” Brooking said.

The more antifa was discussed online, the more misinformation spread. Speculation that antifa activists planned to bus into small towns in Idaho and Wisconsin prompted the appearance of counterprotesters and armed militias. Trump tweeted the false conspiracy theory that Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo who was shoved by police and suffered serious injuries, was connected to antifa.

When the White House was asked for evidence of any antifa involvement, a senior administration official pointed the Fact Checker to statements by officials such as Barr and national security adviser Robert O’Brien that the administration had evidence. So far, however, the administration has not disclosed any such evidence.

The Pinocchio Test

It is virtually impossible to account for the beliefs and motives of every person at every protest. And, consequently, virtually impossible to say that no one with antifa beliefs was involved in any violence.

But beliefs and orchestrating organized violence are not the same. There has not yet been a single confirmed case in which someone who self-identifies as antifa led violent acts at any of the protests across the country. The president and his administration have placed an outsize burden of blame on antifa, without waiting for arrest data and completed investigations.

This is not the first time Trump has pointed to antifa as a shadowy nemesis. But the misinformation created by his continued insistence of antifa’s involvement has led to more chaos and violence in an already turbulent moment. As always, the burden of proof rests with the speaker — and the administration has provided no evidence, only assertions that it has evidence.

Trump earns Four Pinocchios.

The video above is part of a YouTube series from The Fact Checker. To see past episodes and catch new ones, subscribe here.

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